News

As Palo Alto police switch to encrypted radio, newsroom scanners go silent

City says policy is intended to bring it into compliance with new state requirement

On Jan. 5, the Palo Alto Police Department switched all police radio communications to an encrypted channel to comply with a state requirement. Embarcadero Media file photo.

In a sudden move that will severely limit the ability of journalists and citizen watchdogs to know about crimes as they are happening in local neighborhoods, the Palo Alto Police Department began encrypting all of its police radio communications Tuesday afternoon.

The policy change, which was adopted with no forewarning and without any direction from the City Council, is intended to bring the city into compliance with a requirement that the California Department of Justice enacted last October, according to the city.

Under this requirement, police agencies must protect personally identifiable information from state and federal databases from being broadcast on an open radio frequency. This includes such information as an individual's name, driver's license number, Social Security number and passport number. They are also required to restrict the release of "criminal justice information," including an individual's criminal history, through an open channel.

The state order allows cities to meet the requirement in one of two ways. An agency can establish policies that restrict the dissemination of personally identifiable while still transmitting other information through an open frequency. Or it can take a more restrictive approach and encrypt all of its communications, effectively ending a decadeslong journalistic practice of responding to breaking news based on information picked up from a police scanner.

In an email to local media, the Palo Alto Police Department said that it is taking the latter approach. The department's decision to encrypt the channel, rather than come up with other protocols for protecting personally identifiable information, was driven by the fact that this option was much easier and quicker to implement, Police Chief Robert Jonsen told this news organization. He also said that because this is an operational issue, the City Council had no role in developing the new policy.

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"It's just made the most sense to do that," Jonsen said.

One option for shielding only personally identifiable and criminal justice information would be to require police officers to use other devices, such as cell phones, when transmitting personally identifiable information, he said. That, however, may complicate an officer's ability to quickly transmit information to all relevant parties.

"It becomes an officer-safety issue if we have them transitioning over and hopping from one channel to another," Jonsen said.

"Even though there are other options, developing protocols and practices would be time consuming and would have likely had significant costs associated with it."

He noted that the department's Technical Services Division is now prioritizing the implementation of a record management system for collecting data on all police stops, a requirement of the Racial and Identity Profiling Act (RIPA). He noted that the department is open to reconsidering its decision on encryption at a later date.

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"We're open to options. We're not going to close the door if we find viable options and solutions," Jonsen said.

With the policy change, Palo Alto is joining a growing list of cities inside and outside the state to switch to encrypted radio communications for reasons having to do with privacy, tactics or both. According to the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, a nonprofit that provides legal resources for journalists, the list of cities and counties that have recently made such a switch to encrypted communication includes Denver, Colorado; Racine, Wisconsin; Sioux City, Iowa; Lancaster County, Pennsylvania; and Baltimore, Maryland.

The Simi Valley Police Department became the first agency in Ventura County to fully encrypt all of its radio communications last November, according to a report in the Ventura County Star. Police Chief David Livingstone told the Star that the department chose to switch to full encryption because it was quicker and easier to do that than to create a system in which only sensitive information is transmitted to an encrypted channel. He also cited incidents in which criminals used open police feeds to plan criminal activity, according to the paper.

However, the Star also reported that Livingstone hoped the switch would be temporary and that an arrangement providing more public access could be found.

Legislators have made efforts to give the news media access to police broadcasts through decryption licenses, but those attempts have not been successful. In Colorado and California, bills were proposed, including California's AB1555. Introduced by Assemblymember Todd Gloria, D-San Diego, in 2019, it would have allowed members of the media to listen upon request.

Jocelyn Dong, editor of Palo Alto Weekly and Palo Alto Online, criticized the Palo Alto policy for curbing the public's access to police information.

"The inability for the public, including the news media, to access real time information about police activities in the city's neighborhoods is a major step backwards in both police transparency and public safety," Dong said. "Access to police dispatches is essential given the lack of any reliable method of obtaining information quickly from the police. It's our hope that the city will choose methods of communication that balance public disclosure with the need to transmit certain information privately."

In a blog post, Jonsen stated that the decision to encrypt all radio transmissions "does not change the Police Department’s commitment to transparency and sharing of public information." He also stated that all law enforcement agencies in Santa Clara County will adopt full encryption by the end of 2021.

The directive from the Department of Justice did not set a deadline for police departments to enact a new encryption policy. It did, however, require them to submit an implementation plan by Dec. 31, 2020.

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As Palo Alto police switch to encrypted radio, newsroom scanners go silent

City says policy is intended to bring it into compliance with new state requirement

by / Palo Alto Weekly

Uploaded: Wed, Jan 6, 2021, 9:25 am

In a sudden move that will severely limit the ability of journalists and citizen watchdogs to know about crimes as they are happening in local neighborhoods, the Palo Alto Police Department began encrypting all of its police radio communications Tuesday afternoon.

The policy change, which was adopted with no forewarning and without any direction from the City Council, is intended to bring the city into compliance with a requirement that the California Department of Justice enacted last October, according to the city.

Under this requirement, police agencies must protect personally identifiable information from state and federal databases from being broadcast on an open radio frequency. This includes such information as an individual's name, driver's license number, Social Security number and passport number. They are also required to restrict the release of "criminal justice information," including an individual's criminal history, through an open channel.

The state order allows cities to meet the requirement in one of two ways. An agency can establish policies that restrict the dissemination of personally identifiable while still transmitting other information through an open frequency. Or it can take a more restrictive approach and encrypt all of its communications, effectively ending a decadeslong journalistic practice of responding to breaking news based on information picked up from a police scanner.

In an email to local media, the Palo Alto Police Department said that it is taking the latter approach. The department's decision to encrypt the channel, rather than come up with other protocols for protecting personally identifiable information, was driven by the fact that this option was much easier and quicker to implement, Police Chief Robert Jonsen told this news organization. He also said that because this is an operational issue, the City Council had no role in developing the new policy.

"It's just made the most sense to do that," Jonsen said.

One option for shielding only personally identifiable and criminal justice information would be to require police officers to use other devices, such as cell phones, when transmitting personally identifiable information, he said. That, however, may complicate an officer's ability to quickly transmit information to all relevant parties.

"It becomes an officer-safety issue if we have them transitioning over and hopping from one channel to another," Jonsen said.

"Even though there are other options, developing protocols and practices would be time consuming and would have likely had significant costs associated with it."

He noted that the department's Technical Services Division is now prioritizing the implementation of a record management system for collecting data on all police stops, a requirement of the Racial and Identity Profiling Act (RIPA). He noted that the department is open to reconsidering its decision on encryption at a later date.

"We're open to options. We're not going to close the door if we find viable options and solutions," Jonsen said.

With the policy change, Palo Alto is joining a growing list of cities inside and outside the state to switch to encrypted radio communications for reasons having to do with privacy, tactics or both. According to the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, a nonprofit that provides legal resources for journalists, the list of cities and counties that have recently made such a switch to encrypted communication includes Denver, Colorado; Racine, Wisconsin; Sioux City, Iowa; Lancaster County, Pennsylvania; and Baltimore, Maryland.

The Simi Valley Police Department became the first agency in Ventura County to fully encrypt all of its radio communications last November, according to a report in the Ventura County Star. Police Chief David Livingstone told the Star that the department chose to switch to full encryption because it was quicker and easier to do that than to create a system in which only sensitive information is transmitted to an encrypted channel. He also cited incidents in which criminals used open police feeds to plan criminal activity, according to the paper.

However, the Star also reported that Livingstone hoped the switch would be temporary and that an arrangement providing more public access could be found.

Legislators have made efforts to give the news media access to police broadcasts through decryption licenses, but those attempts have not been successful. In Colorado and California, bills were proposed, including California's AB1555. Introduced by Assemblymember Todd Gloria, D-San Diego, in 2019, it would have allowed members of the media to listen upon request.

Jocelyn Dong, editor of Palo Alto Weekly and Palo Alto Online, criticized the Palo Alto policy for curbing the public's access to police information.

"The inability for the public, including the news media, to access real time information about police activities in the city's neighborhoods is a major step backwards in both police transparency and public safety," Dong said. "Access to police dispatches is essential given the lack of any reliable method of obtaining information quickly from the police. It's our hope that the city will choose methods of communication that balance public disclosure with the need to transmit certain information privately."

In a blog post, Jonsen stated that the decision to encrypt all radio transmissions "does not change the Police Department’s commitment to transparency and sharing of public information." He also stated that all law enforcement agencies in Santa Clara County will adopt full encryption by the end of 2021.

The directive from the Department of Justice did not set a deadline for police departments to enact a new encryption policy. It did, however, require them to submit an implementation plan by Dec. 31, 2020.

Comments

Name hidden
Downtown North

Registered user
on Jan 6, 2021 at 11:08 am
Name hidden, Downtown North

Registered user
on Jan 6, 2021 at 11:08 am

Due to repeated violations of our Terms of Use, comments from this poster are automatically removed. Why?


Resident 1-Adobe Meadows
Registered user
Adobe-Meadow
on Jan 6, 2021 at 11:21 am
Resident 1-Adobe Meadows, Adobe-Meadow
Registered user
on Jan 6, 2021 at 11:21 am

The City of San Jose is trying to hire a new police chief but they do not have many resumes submitted. The news qualified the lack of funding, the lack of support for the police in general, and the low number of police on the force. The prior police chief just went to Dallas - a much bigger city that has good funding and a healthy number of police.

This state, county, and city has allowed special interest groups to take over the standard police position within the city. Other people telling them how to do their jobs. There is no incentive for people to come here. Overall not a good scene or direction for people's safety. The "bad guys' have too any protectors and have more rights then the taxpaying citizens. The bad guys can listen to the police broadcasts that hinders their ability to do their jobs. Good - do not tell them when you are coming.


anon1234
Registered user
College Terrace
on Jan 6, 2021 at 12:32 pm
anon1234, College Terrace
Registered user
on Jan 6, 2021 at 12:32 pm

This city is turning into a dictatorship....,


mjh
Registered user
College Terrace
on Jan 6, 2021 at 1:05 pm
mjh, College Terrace
Registered user
on Jan 6, 2021 at 1:05 pm

Certainly appears that the police chief pulled a fast one. A fait accompli that appears to have been carefully timed until after the former council had had their last meeting and before the new council had their first (regular) meeting.

The question is, did the city manager know about this beforehand or was he kept in the dark too?


Annette
Registered user
College Terrace
on Jan 6, 2021 at 6:14 pm
Annette, College Terrace
Registered user
on Jan 6, 2021 at 6:14 pm

I read the requirement, written on behalf of DC-bound Xavier Becerra, and my take on it is that PAPD's action was done to be in compliance with that requirement. Nonetheless, it is unsettling b/c it appears to be contrary to the drive to increase transparency vis-a-vis our police departments. So I am inclined to agree with Ms. Dong. But since I have no expertise in this, I look forward to reading comments on this from readers who do.


Mark
Registered user
Old Palo Alto
on Jan 6, 2021 at 6:30 pm
Mark, Old Palo Alto
Registered user
on Jan 6, 2021 at 6:30 pm


I've heard this too many times from City staff, " Council has no role, we decide". Our weak (rotating) Mayor, strong City Manager form of government has created a bloated self-perpetuating city bureaucracy that is neither accountable nor effective. It is a regular feature of Palo Alto City Council meetings for the City Manager to tell Council members that they are only to create policy, and everything else, including evaluating results, is for city staff to to determine on their own. I've heard this directly from vice city managers and mid-level city managers. So, our police chief's view that they are not accountable to City Council nor need to review their plan to adopt the most extreme solution to comply with the directive is the rule, not an exception. It is an attitude that is pervasive at all levels in our city staff.


Resident 1-Adobe Meadows
Registered user
Adobe-Meadow
on Jan 6, 2021 at 6:35 pm
Resident 1-Adobe Meadows, Adobe-Meadow
Registered user
on Jan 6, 2021 at 6:35 pm

Our local newspaper people are coming at the topic with their own agenda. Some of the recent articles concerning FHP and Police Activity have had a "spin". They are busy trying to form opinions and cherry pick facts to get to an "opinion". Be careful concerning what you read. [Portion removed.]


Bad Timing
Registered user
Community Center
on Jan 6, 2021 at 7:07 pm
Bad Timing, Community Center
Registered user
on Jan 6, 2021 at 7:07 pm

Major strike against the city for not running this by the city council at least on the consent calendar.

Announced the same day a bloodless coup was proceeding in DC. Ominous.


Resident 1-Adobe Meadows
Registered user
Adobe-Meadow
on Jan 6, 2021 at 7:17 pm
Resident 1-Adobe Meadows, Adobe-Meadow
Registered user
on Jan 6, 2021 at 7:17 pm
iSez
Registered user
Palo Alto High School
on Jan 6, 2021 at 9:50 pm
iSez, Palo Alto High School
Registered user
on Jan 6, 2021 at 9:50 pm

Great news! Journalists are the enemy of law enforcement. We need our police to be able to do their jobs without Monday Morning Quarterbacks. I want to feel safe. Defunding the police is an obnoxious idea by hypocrites.


Resident 1-Adobe Meadows
Registered user
Adobe-Meadow
on Jan 7, 2021 at 6:52 am
Resident 1-Adobe Meadows, Adobe-Meadow
Registered user
on Jan 7, 2021 at 6:52 am

RE Mark's comments - we keep hiring consultants for jobs that the city staff is suppose to be doing. Aren't the city staff suppose to be hired for good qualifications for their jobs? Then we have "Commissioners" who are trying to run the city. New day now it is 2021 - PACC - take charge of this place. Commissioners are suppose to be helping. Not using their jobs to build their resume for political advancement at the expense of the city. Things here went out of control this summer.


Squidsie
Registered user
another community
on Jan 7, 2021 at 10:27 am
Squidsie, another community
Registered user
on Jan 7, 2021 at 10:27 am

How long until encrypted scanners are readily available on EBay, if they aren't already?


Resident
Registered user
Crescent Park
on Jan 7, 2021 at 9:39 pm
Resident, Crescent Park
Registered user
on Jan 7, 2021 at 9:39 pm

I have a different and disturbing take, having recently listened to many hours of PAPD dispatch over weeks. I'm a resident with experience listening to VHF radio comms in other contexts. Here, I listened over the internet after a wild crime incident near my home piqued my interest.

This is my take: encryption masks Palo Alto's thin protection. I was very surprised how few patrol officers are out there on a shift. My opinion of the number of patrol officers communicating with the dispatcher during a shift is so small that I hesitate to share my opinion in this open forum.

I'd go so far as to say I'm mildly shocked, and feel betrayed by the PA City Council for their vote to reduce police by 20% under present circumstances: within a few blocks of my home, i) a neighbor in his 80s was stabbed in/about the neck, and nearly died of his wounds; ii) a fleeing thief jettisoned a semi-auto pistol in the gutter; iii) a house was assaulted multiple times on Christmas Day, culminating in break-in; and iv) there have been numerous vehicle burglaries/thefts and vandalism/thefts of catalytic converters.

I invite new Council and new Mayor to determine how many police are on patrol during a shift, especially the overnight shift. With this information, Council should reconsider its 20% reduction.


Barron Parker Too
Registered user
Barron Park
on Jan 8, 2021 at 3:46 pm
Barron Parker Too, Barron Park
Registered user
on Jan 8, 2021 at 3:46 pm

As expected, Sheyner's position, clearly revealed in his reporting, is critical of the police. He appears so intent on getting his message through that he repeats the last paragraph, about an ill-advised bill to prevent encryption so that reporters can monitor in real-time the inter-police communications.

Smart move by PAPD, to encrypt their transmissions and prevent the "bad guys" from hearing it. The system is working.


Peter Carpenter
Registered user
Menlo Park
on Jan 8, 2021 at 4:07 pm
Peter Carpenter, Menlo Park
Registered user
on Jan 8, 2021 at 4:07 pm

Blog from Police Chief:

Recently, the Palo Alto Police Department encrypted its radio transmissions to comply with a mandate from the California Department of Justice that requires all California law enforcement agencies to protect personal identifying information. Given recent public and media discussions on this topic, I would like to take a moment to discuss this state requirement and how it does not change the Police Department’s commitment to transparency and sharing of public information.
The Palo Alto Police Department is not the first law enforcement agency in Santa Clara County to comply with this state mandate, which local media reports have led the public to believe. In fact, the Santa Clara County Sheriff’s Office, the San Jose Police Department, the Morgan Hill Police Department, and the Sunnyvale Department of Public Safety have moved their radio communications to encrypted channels. The remaining law enforcement agencies in the County are continuing to use open and unencrypted channels in the short term and are all planning to migrate to encrypted channels by the end of the calendar year at the latest. At that time, every law enforcement agency in Santa Clara County will be using encryption.


Web Link


mjh
Registered user
College Terrace
on Jan 8, 2021 at 4:11 pm
mjh, College Terrace
Registered user
on Jan 8, 2021 at 4:11 pm

Was this the only alternative?


pearl
Registered user
another community
on Jan 13, 2021 at 1:55 pm
pearl, another community
Registered user
on Jan 13, 2021 at 1:55 pm

BAD GUYS listen to police radio transmissions all the time! Encryption is the ONLY way to go!


Ezra
Registered user
Stanford
on Jan 29, 2021 at 3:59 pm
Ezra, Stanford
Registered user
on Jan 29, 2021 at 3:59 pm

I remember 2 years ago when they moved to SVRCS, I stopped scanning as I didn't have the equipment and my SDR wasn't capable of following P25 without workarounds that I never got around to working around. Radio scanning taught me a lot about radio and the hidden world around us-- a fascination that I still carry with me. Encrypting these systems just further hides all the things that go on around us, sticking this information and wonder further behind the curtains-- now in a place unobtainable. I learned a lot from my experiences, gained a lot of respect for the people who keep our world moving; it's a shame future people won't be able to have this same experience.


Peter Carpenter
Registered user
Menlo Park
on Jan 29, 2021 at 4:25 pm
Peter Carpenter, Menlo Park
Registered user
on Jan 29, 2021 at 4:25 pm

Why not release recordings of all radio traffic after a 24 hour delay?

That would certainly not hinder ongoing operations and would provide the necessary transparency.


pearl
Registered user
another community
on Jan 29, 2021 at 4:58 pm
pearl, another community
Registered user
on Jan 29, 2021 at 4:58 pm

Peter -

This has nothing to do with "necessary transparency". There is no reason for the consuming pubic to listen to police radio communications for a number of reasons. Among other things, bad guys listen all the time, which puts police officers' lives in danger, as well as sometimes the lives of private citizens, too,depending upon the information that is being transmitted.

I could give you several examples of why it is critical for police radio communications to be encrypted, but this newspaper now has a 200 word limit per reply.

pearl


Resident
Registered user
Crescent Park
on Jan 29, 2021 at 5:57 pm
Resident, Crescent Park
Registered user
on Jan 29, 2021 at 5:57 pm

Points of Information:

This issue concerns dispatch radio traffic only. I've listened to many, many, many hours of it, and have experience continuously monitoring radio comms in other capacities.

PAPD uses numerous other channels daily, which are secure. For example, shift roll call is on another channel, not the dispatch channel. Also, when an incident imminently or actually becomes 'tactical', comms go to a secure channel. Comms with CHP and sheriff departments/Stanford are always on other channels.

Dispatch is mundane. ID/badge codes for patrol officers. Generic "RP" is for any reporting party. "Subject" for others; suspect, detainee, arrestee. From time to time at a traffic stop, a driver's license check involves dispatch, with a name is phonetically spelled. That's about it.

Finally, perhaps significantly for transparency, if not public, there is no record. Dispatch is, from what I discerned, not recorded at all times. When recorded, the dispatcher announces recordation coming on, sounds off the time, and a persistent reminder beep plays every 5-10 seconds. When recordation comes off, dispatch announces the termination, and sounds off the time.


Peter Carpenter
Registered user
Menlo Park
on Jan 29, 2021 at 5:59 pm
Peter Carpenter, Menlo Park
Registered user
on Jan 29, 2021 at 5:59 pm

Delayed release of radio transmissions provides no threat to police operations that occurred 24 hours ago.

The same is true of body camera footage.

Transparency is essential to ensure public support and confidence in our police.


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